The Court of Appeal has recently handed down an important judgment on the application of the law of confidence in matrimonial proceedings: Tchenguiz & Ors v Imerman [2010] EWCA Civ 908. The background to the case was that an application for ancillary relief had been made by Mrs Tchenguiz Imerman (TI) against her husband, Mr Imerman. Fearing that Mr Imerman may seek to conceal the nature and extent of his assets in the context of the ancillary relief proceedings, one of TI’s brothers, possibly with the help of others, accessed a computer server in an office which Mr Imerman shared with TI’s brothers and then copied information and documents which Mr Imerman had placed on that server relating to his assets. In order to prevent TI relying on the information and the documents in the ancillary relief proceedings, Mr Imerman sought to restrain the defendants from communicating the information and documents which they had obtained to any third party (including TI and her lawyers). He also sought delivery up of all copies of the documents. Eady J granted the orders sought by Mr Imerman. The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal. The central issue for the Court of Appeal was essentially whether TI should be allowed to use the information and documents in the context of the ancillary relief proceedings, despite the fact that they appeared to have been obtained by the defendants in breach of confidence and, hence, unlawfully.  The case was rendered particularly complex as a result of what is commonly known in matrimonial proceedings as the ‘Hildebrande rules’. Historically, these rules have been applied by the courts in matrimonial ancillary relief proceedings so as generally to allow individuals to rely on evidence as to their spouses’ assets notwithstanding that that evidence has been unlawfully obtained.

In summary, the Court of Appeal held as follows:

·         the information/documents had been unlawfully obtained by the defendants as they had been obtained in breach of confidence (and, further, in breach of Mr Imerman’s right to privacy);


·         it may be that the obtaining of the information/documents had also amounted to: (a) criminal conduct on an application of s. 17 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990; (b) unlawful processing of Mr Imerman’s personal data under s. 4(4) Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA); and, further, (c) a criminal act under s. 55 DPA; although having found that the information/documents were obtained unlawfully in breach of confidence, the Court did not need to reach a concluded view on these issues;


·         the question for the Court was whether it should effectively condone the illegal self-help methods adopts by the defendants simply because it was feared that Mr Imerman may behave unlawfully and conceal that which should be disclosed in the ancillary relief proceedings. The answer to that question was: ‘No’ (see para. 107). As the Court suggested:The tort of trespass to chattels has been known to our law since the Middle Ages and the law of confidence for at least 200 years, yet no hint of any defences of the kind now being suggested is to be found anywhere in the books’ (para. 117). Thus, the Hildebrande rules could not be justified on any grounds;


·         if there were concerns that an individual may seek dishonestly to conceal assets in the context of ancillary relief proceedings, the correct course would be for the spouse to seek to protect her/his position through lawful means, for example by applying to the court for an anton pillar order.

The judgment is important not least because it highlights the essentially inalienable nature of the common law rights to confidentiality and privacy. There is no doubt that the judgment will be controversial, not least because of concerns that it fails to recognise the significant power imbalance which often obtains between spouses in matrimonial proceedings.